‘This is what homelessness looks like in the North’

The No Fixed Address Outreach Van provides nursing, warm clothing and harm-reduction supplies, such as clean needles and crack pipes, to Whitehorse's down-and-out. It also offers food.

The No Fixed Address Outreach Van provides nursing, warm clothing and harm-reduction supplies, such as clean needles and crack pipes, to Whitehorse’s down-and-out.

It also offers food.

On any given night, the van’s workers may offer soup and sandwiches to about 70 residents.

They often run out, says Patricia Bacon, executive director for Blood Ties Four Directions, which helps run the van.

Bacon addressed a touring parliamentary committee in Whitehorse on Tuesday. The committee, led by Tony Martin, the NDP’s MP for Sault Ste. Marie, has spent more than a year listening to the thoughts of frontline workers on how the federal government can better fight poverty.

For Martin, Bacon’s testimony brought home the challenges faced by Yukon’s poor.

Here, homelessness is largely hidden, she explained.

The indigent cannot sleep on the streets in the winter. Instead, they rest in drug dens, flop houses and the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter during the cold months. They trade sex and drugs for shelter when necessary.

And often, the only medical services these residents use is what’s on offer from the outreach van, said Bacon.

“This is what homelessness looks like in the North,” she said.

“It’s a shocking eye-opener in a country as wealthy as Canada,” Martin said in an interview afterwards.

Canada needs a national housing strategy, said Laura MacFeeters with the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. Yukon’s tight rental market, antiquated tenancy laws and shortage of affordable housing all thwart residents’ efforts to lift themselves out of poverty, she said.

She also called for the creation of a disability pension. Yukoners with long-term disabilities are frequently in no position to work, yet they’re stuck on the welfare rolls and, as such, are expected to repeatedly prove they’re still unemployable.

That creates needless headaches for disabled residents who have enough challenges as it stands.

For example, if you suffer from a mental disability, chances are you have difficulty wending your way through the territorial bureaucracy in order to access various government services.

And you won’t find much help to do this – especially if you’re a man who is mentally disabled, but not mentally ill.

There are advocates who help women and the mentally ill access government services, but there’s currently nobody to help mentally disabled men navigate the bureaucracy.

The Yukon Council on DisAbility tried to create such a position in September, but the territorial government said no.

The council’s staff spent much of the summer helping clients fill out paperwork or parse jargon used by government officials.

“We were going to court with people the whole day,” said Amy Martey, the council’s employer liaison and job coach, in an interview.

Eventually, staff had to tell clients they couldn’t help them with their problems with government.

“That’s not what we want to do,” said Martey.

Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services, which administers the Community Development Fund, turned the group’s funding request down, deeming it didn’t fit their mandate.

The council is supposed to help the disabled improve their education and find work. It’s not supposed to be an advocacy group.

So it’s back to square one. The council is now talking with other nonprofits about working together on another application to create a disabled advocate for the territory.

Meanwhile, Yukon’s disabled face long waits to receive other kinds of help.

Need a mental health councillor? Expect to wait several months, said Martey.

Similarly, those who need a supportive-living councillor face waits of one to two months, she said.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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